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A Fine Bookshelf

I once taught a rites-of-passage class to a group of African American and Caribbean American teenage girls. The workshops included lessons in history, self-care, and literacy. These classes weren’t supposed to be like school. I was there to help deepen their understanding of their world and their place in it.

I created a lesson called the Mogya Line. Mogya is the Akan (Ghanaian) word for blood — so, a bloodline. I had the young women line themselves up and assigned a time period to each one in descending order. Every girl represented a generation, so each was separated from the person behind her by a period of about twenty-five years. The first person in line was the daughter or granddaughter or great-granddaughter, etc., of all the mothers behind her. That way, the girls were able to have a concrete visual image of what it looked like to be part of a long line of women. We discussed the time periods in which each mother would have lived and came to the conclusion that the sixth or seventh mother on the line would have been the first free ancestor. The remaining mothers behind her would’ve lived under slavery — a period of almost 250 years, or about ten generations; and the last person of those ten would’ve been the ancestor who experienced the Middle Passage, given that she was amongst the very first Africans to arrive in the New World during the 1620s.

A few months ago, activist DeRay Mckesson started the Twitter hashtag #GenerationReader, asking his followers to acknowledge how many generations of readers they had in their families. I shared that I was a second-generation reader on my mother’s side. Meaning: my mother could read, but not my maternal grandparents. Had I known to pose this question to the girls on the Mogya Line, we might have realized that there were more ancestors who were enslaved than there were ancestors who could read, with a few possible overlaps — those who were both literate and enslaved.

Ibi_Daughters

Ibi Zoboi in 2013 with her daughters, Bahati and Abadai.

I’ve never been able to think about literacy for black children without thinking about the historical effects of slavery. Black children were not allowed to read for far longer than there have been books that feature them. And in my case, my own mother did not read English until after she emigrated from Haiti. While she’s read plenty of textbooks, I’m pretty sure she has never read a whole novel in English. And here I am building a life writing novels for children.

When I was pregnant with our first child, Abadai (now thirteen), my husband built a bookshelf. I thought it would be the most important piece of furniture in our daughter’s life. The first book I bought for Abadai was Chicka Chicka Boom Boom. I’d read it to her in our local bookstore, and like any other toddler who loves repetition and rhyme, she’d shout out “Again!” when we reached the final page. We had graduated from the simple board books that we’d get for free at the Reading Is Fundamental (RIF) program at the library, which, while much appreciated, were barely enough to fill our bookshelf.

steptoe_mufaro's beautiful daughtersWhen I started working outside the home after my second daughter, Bahati (now eleven), was born, we made fewer trips to storytime at the library. This left us with occasional Saturday mornings to visit the library (when the RIF cart was not readily available), and I searched the shelves for books that both my daughters and I would love. I soon discovered the green “black interest” stickers on certain books. My and my daughters’ worlds opened up when we read about Niki Daly’s Jamela and her many adventures, Stephanie Stuve-Bodeen’s Elizabeti (illustrated by Christy Hale), John Steptoe’s Mufaro’s Beautiful Daughters, Rachel Isadora’s Caribbean Dream, and at long last, a picture book set in Haiti, Denizé Lauture and Reynold Ruffins’s Running the Road to ABC.

I made the decision to actually purchase books by and/or about people of color in order to start building a home library for our daughters that would resemble our own public library. I needed the classics written during the Harlem Renaissance — a collection of children’s poems by Langston Hughes. I needed the children’s books that documented the civil rights and black arts movements, literary award-winners, lowbrow commercial books, and a children’s book equivalent to everything Octavia Butler ever wrote. I tried and, for a time, I succeeded.

Last year, Emily Jenkins and Sophie Blackall’s picture book A Fine Dessert received criticism for its depiction of slavery, showing what was intended to be a tender moment between an enslaved mother and daughter sharing some forbidden blackberry fool dessert. One of the critiques was that this black mother and daughter would have been risking severe punishment by hiding out in a cupboard to enjoy a bit of sweetness during one of the darkest times in American history. In this book, blackberry fool was the common thread connecting four centuries of European and American families, and I imagine this dessert can be like storytelling. In the same way that recipes are handed down through the generations, so can stories.

Had this mother and daughter been part of my own Mogya Line, I wonder at what point their descendants, my ancestors, would have been able to actually write down the recipe for blackberry fool and preserve it for the next generations. I also wonder if this dessert would be worth preserving if it was something they’d inherited through slavery — having to learn the beloved recipes of their masters, under fear of violent punishment, in order to continue a tradition that they themselves could not fully claim, one that was not handed down by their own mothers before them.

And what would be different if instead of a forbidden dessert, this enslaved mother and daughter were stealing words from a page — teaching themselves to read and trying to capture the sweetness of story in hopes of finding a bit of what was lost on that long, forced journey across the ocean?

hamilton_people could flyWhen my daughters were toddlers, I tried my best to tell them stories. I made them up because there were few stories that my mother told me as a child. She was an immigrant and worked long hours, so there was no time for such tender moments. As a Haitian immigrant myself, I believed that the oral tradition was something I could proudly pass on to my children. But those stories were lost to me. I had to search for them in books such as Diane Wolkstein’s The Magic Orange Tree and Virginia Hamilton’s Her Stories and The People Could Fly.

When my elder daughter was a kindergartener, I taught her how to look for those green “black interest” stickers in the library. We would crouch down near the low shelves in the children’s book section, and maybe she thought it was a fun game of Hot Peas & Butter. I would smile, too, because the sweetness of the moment was sharing the joy of books and reading with my children. But the larger, darker reality was that those green stickers we searched so hard for were on a mere fraction of all the books in the library. If these mirror books are so few and far between, and the stories of their ancestors are lost, what, then, can I pass on to my daughters that is rightfully theirs — something they’ve inherited from the mothers on their Mogya Line?

woodson_show wayThe books on our homemade bookshelf represent a patchwork of sorts — a quilt much like the one in Jacqueline Woodson’s Show Way. Through determination and persistence — and with the help of those (now-defunct) green public library stickers — we’ve managed to piece together what has been lost on the journey across the ocean. Somewhere amongst the African American poetry collections, biographies, and classics, our children will find the seeds of those lost Anansi tales and the Haitian Bouki and Ti Malice stories. I’m especially grateful for Tracey Baptiste’s recent middle-grade novel The Jumbies, based on both Haitian and Trinidadian folklore. And through that particular book, my daughters have shared a sweet moment with their Trinidadian grandmother discussing jumbies and other Caribbean legends.

Now that they are both in middle school, whatever it is that my daughters are learning about their world, they can contextualize with the books on their homemade bookshelf. Their reading tastes have matured, and they choose their own books, ones that don’t always feature brown girls or have a (metaphorical) green sticker. I’ve built a foundation for them with the relatively few empowering mirror books I could find. And out of those planted seeds sprouted two brown girls with a deep love of story coupled with razor-sharp critical thinking skills.

Family stories, recipes, and traditions often take the place of books in the home. Even if they don’t go as far back on the Mogya Line to predate slavery and the Middle Passage, these sorts of unwavering traditions, regardless of the dark epochs in history out of which they emerged, are cause for tender moments and maybe even a smile. What I’ve taught the girls in my Mogya Line workshop and my own daughters is that someone lived long enough to give birth to them, and to their mother, and to the many mothers before them. The survival stories are what we can hold near and dear. Like blackberry fool dessert and carefully curated books on a homemade bookshelf, stories are the stuff of ancestors, pieced together to preserve ideas and beloved traditions. Certainly, all people have their own tales of survival and triumph, their own versions of history. However, what can exist within each family, on every Mogya Line, are stories that build on a common humanity.

The final part of the Mogya Line activity (which in itself can be a lesson on mitochondrial DNA) is a math exercise of sorts. While the girls were able to experience being part of a long line of women, I had them draw out what it looks like to be part of a family tree. Through a series of math games, we were able to calculate that the tenth mother on the Mogya Line would’ve been just one member out of 1,024 members of the eighth generation. One mother’s story on the Mogya Line is the story of everyone on that particular family tree, and the story of that family tree is the story of humanity. And much like the Anansi Spider tales, our collective stories are intricately woven into a fine web. If books are to act in the same manner, the words and pictures ought to validate the family traditions and the recipes, while upholding the truths in our collective history — however dark, however broken.


 

Ibi Zoboi talks with Edwidge Danticat and Rita Williams-Garcia

Authors Edwidge Danticat and Rita Williams-Garcia (who, like me, also have two daughters close in age) offer some insight on how books, writing, and mothering have affected the reading lives of their daughters.

IBI ZOBOI: Do you think being a black woman author has affected how you share books with your daughters?

Ibi Zoboi and Edwidge Danticat.

Ibi Zoboi and Edwidge Danticat

EDWIDGE DANTICAT: I think I would have shared books with my daughters no matter what. Though I didn’t have a lot of books growing up, I was told a lot of stories. I’m also a voracious reader, so I would definitely share that with my kids. There’s been a kind of extra perk for my daughters in having the privilege of sometimes meeting the authors we read because of my work. I always love seeing the delighted look in their eyes when they realize that the author is a real person, that these words didn’t magically produce themselves.

RITA WILLIAMS-GARCIA: Being a part of the writing community made it easy to usher my daughters into a world of books by authors of color beyond what we had at home. When my daughters were young, I brought them with me to my friends’ and colleagues’ readings, as well as to art exhibits. Exposing the girls to a range of images created by artists of color was as important to me as sharing the written word. Imagine the impression derived from seeing Faith Ringgold’s story quilts at a gallery and then reading her iconic Tar Beach! Imagine the connections made.

My daughters were also my helpers at book fairs. When they finished working at my booth, they scoured the festival grounds (Harlem Book Fair, African American Children’s Book Fair, etc.) in search of books by favorite authors.

IZ: Did you tell stories to your daughters — folktales, family and cultural stories, etc.?

ED: We alternated between reading and telling stories. I like to encourage my girls to make up stories with me. I say one line and they complete the story. We take turns. We get the craziest and funniest stories that way. I also tell them Haitian folktales, which are better told. Sometimes we also read them in translation and sing the Creole songs that come with these folktales.

Rita Williams-Garcia and Ibi Zoboi.

Rita Williams-Garcia and Ibi Zoboi

RWG: I know I did, but honestly, I was too busy working a job, writing a book, and going to school. That’s where the elders and their father came in! My daughters had the benefit of talkative grandmothers and great-grandmothers from the Caribbean and the South. Not to be outdone, my father told funny stories about growing up Southern and under his mother’s rule. During my grad school days, their father read Langston Hughes poetry to them while they waited for me to get out of class. He encouraged their storytelling by engaging them in “pass the mic” story starters. In our case, community built literacy, starting with our elders.

IZ: How have you built and how will you continue to build a “fine bookshelf” for your daughters?

ED: My girls have read Toni Morrison’s picture books, the ones she wrote with her son Slade. I’m really looking forward to my girls reading her adult books and other books by black women writers. I can’t wait for them to read Maya Angelou, whom I read when I was in my early teens. I think these books will give us great opportunities to talk about what it’s like to be young black women. I also want them to read lots of Haitian literature. Maybe we’ll start with Masters of the Dew (Gouverneurs de la Rosée) by Jacques Roumain. I really don’t want to put limits on them. I want them to feel free to read whatever they want. My oldest read the kiddie versions of Oliver Twist and Pollyanna and really loved them and now wants to read the adult versions. I’m all for letting kids read whatever they feel they can read in terms of genre. There is no hierarchy in terms of age. No erotica at ten, of course. But so many writers I know said they sneaked reads of Lady Chatterley’s Lover or some other forbidden book when they were kids, so that might be one way of creating a writer: hide a book from them and let them find it and hungrily read it and feed their love for reading.

RWG: There were so few books back then, and not everything available would have necessarily appealed to them. We were a Just Us Books family for fun activities and picture books. As Michelle and Stephanie became independent readers, they chose their own books. Our bookshelf was open to what interested them and what they could read, without restriction. Because our children were surrounded by our books, our political and cultural point of views, I didn’t require particular reading; it was in the air they breathed. I remember Peter (Garcia) had Michelle read Nawal El Saadawi’s Woman at Point Zero when she was about twelve. No Laughter Here didn’t exist at the time. However, I did say no to CosmoGirl and Seventeen magazine when my daughters were pre-tweens. As a result, Michelle became a magazine fanatic at twelve and is now a journalist by profession.

From the March/April 2016 issue of The Horn Book Magazine.

To commemorate Black History Month, we are highlighting a series of articles, speeches, and reviews from The Horn Book archive that are by and/or about African American authors, illustrators, and luminaries in the field — one a day through the month of February, with a roundup on Fridays. Click the tag HBBlackHistoryMonth17 and look for #HBBlackHistoryMonth17 on Facebook.com/TheHornBook and @HornBook. You can find more resources about social justice and activism at our Talking About Race and Making a Difference resource pages.

The Horn Book celebrates Black History Month

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Ibi Zoboi About Ibi Zoboi

Ibi Zoboi holds an MFA in writing for children and young adults from Vermont College of Fine Arts. Her debut YA debut, American Street (Balzer + Bray/HarperCollins), is due out in 2017, and her middle-grade debut, My Life as an Ice Cream Sandwich (Dutton), is forthcoming.

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